Indian diplomat Navtej Sarna‘s latest book pieces together the history of an Indian “hospice” in Jerusalem. Spread over seven thousand square metres near the Dome of the Rock, the property has its origins in a visit by Sufi saint Baba Farid about 800 years ago.
Farid, a pioneer of the Punjabi literary tradition, supposedly meditated for 40 days in an underground chamber in Jerusalem. His presence brought followers to this site and it “expanded through the centuries as a place for Indian pilgrims to stay.”
Thus begins the journey of “Indians at Herod’s Gate – A Jerusalem Tale“, a travelogue through the crowded, narrow lanes of the ancient sacred city.
It is also the story of the retreat’s caretakers, the Ansaris, who have their roots in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. In 1924, Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari, the son of a police inspector, left his dusty village in northern India for Jerusalem. Around 45 years old then, he was deputised by leaders of the Khilafat Movement to look after the hospice.
As Sarna “unpeels” a little Indian corner in Jerusalem, the story intertwines the histories of this large family and the hospice, including the Israeli shelling of 1967 that claimed the lives of three Ansaris.